The Truth About Foxgloves

This article was originally published on June 11, 2018 by The New York Botanical Garden’s “Plant Talk” blog.

In June, purple foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) are in bloom at The New York Botanical Garden. Tall, striking spires with dozens of little finger-shaped blooms, foxgloves are native all across western Europe.

Traditionally cultivated in English borders, there are about 20 different species. They bloom in colors from yellows, pinks, lavenders, and whites to purple, with dark spots inside the blooms.

The leaves form in large clusters during the first year, and there are no blooms. Large and fuzzy green, they look a bit like sage or even spinach. In the second year, the blooms appear and the seeds can eventually be collected for re-planting, or they may naturalize.

Totally Toxic

A folk myth about foxgloves claims that the foxes who make dens in the woodland hills wear the flowers on their paws when they attack rural villagers. Sometimes called “witches’ gloves,” the plant’s toxicity was known for centuries by herbalists. Other common names for the plant are also a dead giveaway to its potent effects, including “witches’ thimbles” and “dead man’s bells”.

The entire plant is poisonous, according to experts. But the leaves, in particular, contain more concentrated toxins.

English botanist William Withering, writing in 1785, was the first to discover the toxic and medicinal qualities of foxgloves. Extracts from the plant contain chemicals called cardiac glycosides—also known as digitalins—used initially for treating some very common heart problems, such as abnormal heart rhythms and symptoms of congestive heart failure, such as swelling of legs.

In the decades to follow, the plant became a significant source of medicine—apothecaries in France reportedly used a painting of the flower as a sort of logo hanging outside their stores to signify their expertise.

In the early 20th century, pharmacologists widely used digitalins for treatment of secondary dropsy (edema) and heart disease. In fact, during World War I in Britain, gardeners would go collecting foxglove leaves in the wild to help the war effort. The leaves were used to extract the medicine.

Meanwhile, for gardeners, one of the most influential garden books at the time, Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden by Gertrude Jekyll, advocated spreading white foxglove seed into the soil to lighten up the edges of dark woodland paths or to screen old tree stumps. Jekyll advises that gardeners forget about the plant for two years until some tall “stately” white spires actually appear.

Luckily, at The New York Botanical Garden we don’t have to wait so long to enjoy the beauty of foxgloves.


How To Mount Staghorn Ferns for a Stunning Display

This article was originally published by the New York Botanical Garden blog,”Plant Talk,” on May 3, 2018.

StaghornStaghorn ferns make a dramatic addition to any indoor plant collection. Botanically, they are epiphytes—plants that thrive while hanging onto threes or hanging in mossy baskets. In tropical environments and in NYBG’s Conservatory, mature staghorn ferns (Platycerium bifurcatum) look awesome with their huge, tan-colored, shield-like plates and green fronds shaped like antlers. The plates cover fairly shallow root balls that cling to tree trunks or other mossy homes.

The plants get their nutrients from the trees or moss they grow on and absorb water through their fronds. Like other ferns, the staghorn variety is among the most ancient of plants. (There are an estimated 10,500 fern species, according to the American Fern Society, some dating back tens of thousands of years.) The staghorn ferns are found from the Philippines and Australia to Madagascar, Africa, and South America. Ferns do not produce flowers, but are able to reproduce by sending very tiny spores into the air. The spores form on the underside of the fertile fronds.

Not surprisingly, mounted staghorn ferns have become popular decorator plants featured on the walls of Manhattan apartments as well as suburban and country estates. Mounting the plants on wooden boards may seem daunting, but it’s easy to learn how. At NYBG’s Staghorn Fern craft class, instructor Tara Douglass explains all the necessary steps and also how to properly care for your fern indoors.

Mounted staghornDouglass owns the Brooklyn Plant Studio and is an experienced floral and garden designer based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She studied horticulture and botany at The New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and is an ISA Certified Arborist. For six years, Douglass worked in the horticulture department at Battery Park City Parks Conservancy. Her commercial retail experience includes a stint at Terrain, the garden and lifestyle store in Westport, Connecticut.

The materials that are provided in Douglass’ class include a wooden board, about 12″ by 16″ for mounting, a plant that comes in a 6″ pot, lots of sphagnum moss for wrapping the root ball, gardeners’ green wire or colorful copper wire, and nails that won’t rust when wet used for fastening the wires around the moss to hold the plant on the board. If you plan to hang the board on a wall, you’ll also get screws to fasten onto the back of the board and more wire.

Douglass’ next class will be offered at NYBG’s midtown location on August 4. In the meantime, keep an eye out for these fascinating ferns at your favorite plant shop.

Walking the Hudson River Valley with Artists Past and Present

View of the Hudson Highlands with Woman Painting
 by John Douglas late 19th C.
 Oil on canvas. Collection of the Hudson River Museum.

 This article originally  was published by on November 11, 2017.


Perched on a cliff overlooking the Hudson River and Palisades, the Hudson River Museum is the perfect place to explore amazing artistic views of the Hudson Valley landscape, which is the focus of its current exhibition called “Walks with Artists: The Hudson Valley and Beyond.

The forty paintings, prints, photographs, and mixed media currently on display are cleverly arranged according to the basic elements that artists actually use as they walk outside to compose landscape paintings– trees, water, sky, terrain, and structures. As Chief Curator Laura Vookles, who organized the show, notes:

“I looked at 19th century and contemporary instructional books on landscape painting…And it was interesting that I saw separate chapters devoted to painting trees, painting water, painting sky, and so forth. So it became a perfect device to fit the theme and to give a reason not to be chronological.”

It took about 3 years and a large team working both indoors and outside the museum to develop and produce the exhibit, says Vookles. They started restoring paintings in the collection more than two years ago, working with four outside conservators. (Vookles and Assistant Curator Theodore Barrow wrote the text.)

Traveling Up the Hudson for Inspiration

The oldest picture in the show is from about 1821, called A View of Baker’s Falls, a well-known site site up near Lake George and Saratoga. There the falls are thought to be the highest of any on the river and they were renamed “Hudson Falls” in 1910.

The painting was created by Irish-born and trained William Guy Wall (1792-c.1864) as part of his portfolio series documenting views along about 212 miles of the river.

Experts at the New York Historical Society say that Wall’s watercolors, which subsequently were engraved by master printmaker John Hill and then widely published, are considered “the first series of prints to make Americans aware of the beauty and sublimity of their own scenery…”

Thomas Cole (American, b. England, 1801-1848) The Voyage of Life: Youth 1853-56 Engraving by James David Smillie 22 x 27 in. Gift of Mrs. A. J. S. Machin, 1946

The Hudson River School

Wall’s landscapes are considered a forerunner to the more famous landscapes of the Hudson River School of Artists, including Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand, whose artworks are also in the show. They are known for their romantic landscapes, often featuring naturalistic details, craggy trees, distant, dramatic mountains, and inspired skies.

The exhibition features a few lovingly restored works from this school of artists, depicting nature as a sort of mystical wilderness in which people often are included as tiny figures, seemingly overwhelmed by nature’s majesty.

Currier & Ives’ Best-Kept Secret

The museum recently purchased two hand-colored lithographs dating from the 1850’s and 60’s, which depict landscapes near West Point and Garrison, New York. Originally published by the well-known New York firm, Currier & Ives, they are fascinating because the woman artist, who is not credited by the firm, is Frances (Fanny) Palmer– one of the most prolific artists of the late 19th century. Palmer’s pictures were so popular that historians say they probably decorated the homes of more Americans than any other single artist’s work.

Palmer, who was born in England (1812-1876), started working as a staff artist at the Currier company in 1849. The only woman artist there, she created more than 200 lithographs for the firm until she retired in 1868. Her images were later reproduced hundreds of times on calendars and greeting cards throughout the 20th century, uncredited except for the name of Currier & Ives. She is considered by some to be the foremost woman lithographer of her time.

Alison Moritsugu Untitled, 2009 Painted log 5 in. h. x 6 in. w. x 14 1/2 in. dia. Gift of the artist, 2009 Collection of the Hudson River Museum

Modern Mixed Media

New York-based visual artist Alison Moritsugu (b. 1962 in Honolulu, Hawai’i) is represented in the show by a single real log that is sliced, with bark intact, so that its wooden cross-section can become a painted surface. It is part of her “log series” painted with idyllic images reminiscent of the Hudson River School paintings.

But the painted image is taken out of context and the log– dead wood– comes from taking down a living tree, so it seem like the artwork reflects Moritsugu’s critique of current environmental destruction.

Moritsugu began to paint on logs in 1993 while at an artist residency in upstate New York. “I had been painting small, detailed landscapes on wood panels… On my morning walks through the wooded residency grounds, I saw neatly-stacked cords of firewood. The cut ends of these logs created a smooth, flat surface, and I became more interested in painting on the logs than on the wood panels.”

For Moritsugu, landscapes of the 18th and 19th century reflect the idea of a limitless wilderness, which was “a contrived narrative” that shaped the American experience of nature. “Today, photoshopped images of verdant forests and unspoiled beaches invite us to vacation and sightsee, providing a false sense of assurance that the wilderness will always exist,” she says. “By exploring idealized views of nature, my work acknowledges our more complex and precarious relationship with the environment.”

Ellen Kozak Hudson River Primer #16, 1997-1998 Oil on panel 11 x 15 in. Gift of the artist, 2002 Collection of the Hudson River Museum

Painted Directly From Nature

Another contemporary artist in the show, Ellen Kozak, paints the rippling surface of water in liquid-looking oils. For her Hudson River Primer series, each summer morning she would walk to the edge of the water and start a new painting. She explains:

“Since 1994 my studio on the east bank of the Hudson River [has provided] a view of the river in all seasons. I work directly on its banks where my visual ideas are guided by direct observation. The evanescence of light on bodies of water entrances me with compelling associations between color and movement.”

In the show, one of her paintings actually is mounted on a panel that has undulating edges mimicking the water’s wavy surface.

Jack Stuppin (American, b. 1933) Tatashu Farm, Catskills, 2016 Oil on canvas 29 3/16 x 36 11/16 in. Gift of the artist, 2016 Collection of the Hudson River Museum

Psychedelic Trees

Compared to the landscapes of earlier centuries, and those of his contemporaries, Jack Stuppins’ brightly-colored, bold, contemporary painting, Tatashu Farm, Catskills (2016), practically jumps off the wall.

When standing up close to the picture, the thick, almost psychedelic pigments are so heavily layered that the surface appears nearly sculptural.

Before he became a painter, Stuppins worked as a computer and digital technology entrepreneur in California. His painting technique reportedly begins by digitizing the landscape images, which truly brings his landscape art right up to the present at the same time that its subject matter is linked to the past.

With this wide-ranging exhibit, viewers can travel vicariously up and down the Hudson River Valley, experiencing awesome vistas, and discovering why the Hudson River has attracted artists for centuries.


“Walks With Artists: The Hudson Valley and Beyond” is on view through January 21, 2018.

The Hudson River Museum is located at 511 Warburton Avenue, Yonkers, New York. 

Inside Virginia Woolf’s Country Garden


This article was originally published by on October 16, 2017.

Monk’s House in the small Sussex village of Rodmell was Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s country retreat from 1919, until Leonard died in 1969. Virginia Woolf wrote most of her major novels at Monk’s House, and drew inspiration and comfort from the lush plantings and red brick pathways weaving through various “garden rooms.”

A terrace with antique millstones, a fishpond garden, an Italian garden, a walled garden, a vegetable garden, and a blazing flower walk were all created by the Woolfs over the years, in what would become one of the most beautiful estates in the English countryside. Starting from a very small, overgrown three quarters of an acre behind a little house originally built in the 17th century, they produced the perfect cottage garden and writer’s paradise that travelers can visit today.


Many crumbling walls, outbuildings, and an old tool shed that Virginia initially used as a writing room dotted the property when they first arrived. An orchard on the far side of the site was bordered by a 12th-century church whose steeple poked up over the trees. Leonard describes the landscape as having all the things he liked:

“a patchwork quilt of trees, shrubs, flowers, vegetables, fruit, roses, and crocus tending to merge into cabbages and currant bushes.”

As for the ramshackle house, Virginia’s sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, who lived nearby at Charleston House, helped decorate the furniture and artwork in the house, along with her companion, the artist Duncan Grant. Virginia painted the sitting room her favorite bright green color. By 1920’s standards, the living conditions– no electricity, no running water, bathroom, or lavatory– were definitely primitive.

Despite the basic conditions, the Woolf’s entertained a large circle of now famous literary and artistic friends who visited Monk’s House, including the authors T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, and Vita Sackville-West; the economist, John Maynard Keynes; and the artist and critic Roger Fry.


A Bright, Painterly Garden

Described as organic and delightfully informal, the garden at Monk’s House was a joint project for Leonard and Virginia. Leonard, who was a political activist as well as the editor and publisher of London-based Hogarth Press, actually became an expert horticulturalist and beekeeper, and was always planting bulbs, pruning trees, harvesting honey, and vegetables, and managing a full-time gardener.

Virginia, on the other hand, conceived of the garden as her inspiration and part of her writing life. She wasn’t that interested in botany, but she liked planting a favorite tree or flower, and often helped with weeding, picking apples, dead-heading flowers, making honey, or just holding a ladder for Leonard.

The Woolf’s entertained a large circle of now famous literary and artistic friends who visited Monk’s House, including the authors T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, and Vita Sackville-West; the economist, John Maynard Keynes; and the artist and critic Roger Fry.

Eventually, Virginia had a proper writing lodge built in a corner of the orchard, which was filled with apple, pear, cherry, and plum trees; it had been an established orchard for about two hundred years before they arrived. Virginia bottled the fruit and she and Leonard often took baskets of apples and pears to friends and to local markets.


A separate fig tree garden– also on an ancient plot– was surrounded by old flint walls and brick paving. The Woolf’s used these walls as a starting point for the basic design and layout of the central portions of the garden– a series of rooms, divided by distinctive brick paths and flint walls. During her frequent illnesses and bouts with depression, walking through the tranquil garden paths was a great comfort and helped to soothe her mind.

To get to the writing lodge, each day she would go past the fig tree garden and fishpond garden, or down the flower walk filled on each side with mixed, giant, richly-colored blooms. She described it as:

“…a perfect variegated chintz… asters, plumasters, zinnias, geums, nasturtiums… all bright, cut from colored papers, stiff upstanding as flowers should be.”


The Bedroom Garden

Virginia’s bedroom at Monk’s House became a sitting room with “a fine view of the downs and marshes and an oblique view of Leonard’s fishpond…” In the cool, grey fall days they would sit by the fireplace and gaze outside where Virginia would see “…vast white lilies, and such a blaze of dahlias that even today one feels lit up.”

Eventually, Virginia had a proper writing lodge built in a corner of the orchard, which was filled with apple, pear, cherry, and plum trees; it had been an established orchard for about two hundred years before they arrived.

When it was too cold to write at her lodge, Virginia worked in the sitting room. The view also encompassed two large, intertwined elm trees, which they dubbed Leonard and Virginia. In 1941 after Virginia took her own life by drowning, Leonard buried her ashes under one of the elm trees in the garden marked by an engraved stone plaque. A bust of Virginia by the Bloomsbury Group artist Stephen Tomlin now sits near the plaque.

After Virginia

Leonard spent more time working and living in London after Virginia’s death, but a new friendship with another gardening enthusiast, Trekkie Parsons, gave him reasons to expand the gardens at Monk’s House with her help. Both loved exotic plants and filled a cactus house on the grounds. In the 1950’s, Leonard built a conservatory that was attached to the green sitting room. He used the space for seedlings and dahlia cuttings, but also for brightly-colored South African species.


Leonard didn’t want the house and garden to become a literary shrine although he did allow the garden to be open for the National Garden Scheme during the last decade of his life. He bequeathed some of the estate to Trekkie Parsons, who then turned over the house and the Woolf’s papers to the University of Sussex. The university rented out the house to visiting academic staff who didn’t necessarily take care of the garden, so by the late 1970’s, it was a wreck. In response, Vita Sackville-West’s younger son, Nigel Nicolson, who was editing Virginia’s letters at the time, persuaded the National Trust to take over preservation of the entire property.

A tenant of the National Trust living at Monk’s House, Caroline Zoob, who authored a wonderful book about the garden, writes about how she and her husband actually lived and worked at Monk’s House for more than a decade beginning in 2000. They planted and re-planted the gardens, looked after all the buildings, and opened the house twice a week to the paying public. Their deep understanding of the place and what it feels like to physically be there makes her book truly valuable.


The book contains many gorgeous, contemporary full-color photographs of the gardens taken by Zoob’s friend and photographer Caroline Arber, which capture its brilliant flowers, sculptures, brick paths, charming interiors, and architectural details– with many images taken very early in the morning, before the public is allowed to visit. (Virginia Woolf’s Garden: The Story of the Garden at Monk’s House is published by Jacqui Small, LLP.)

Day-tripping in Sussex

Monk’s House is located in the area of East Sussex known as South Downs National Park, which features fabulous trails and scenic views. A short distance from Monk’s House is Charleston House, the country home of Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell, her husband Clive Bell, and her artistic companion Duncan Grant. After World War I, Charleston became a meeting place for many artists, writers, and thinkers known as the Bloomsbury Group.

Virginia often walked over the Sussex Downs to her sister’s house for visits with her niece and nephews. The house is decorated with many of Bell’s paintings, ceramics, and textiles. A lovely walled garden was designed by Roger Fry in 1919.

A few miles away is the small Berwick Church best-known as the place where Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, and Quentin Bell, her son, painted striking murals that cover the nave walls, chancel arch, screen, and pulpit.

Also nearby is the former home of beloved author and poet Rudyard Kipling, called Bateman’s, where his family lived from 1902 to 1939. Covering 330 stunning acres, there are ancient woodlands and wonderful walking trails. Formal and wild gardens surround Kipling’s 17th century, Jacobean-style stone house, in which his book-lined study and art collection are still on view– just as he left them, for all to enjoy.


Photo credits: Nick Lansley, Helen Haden– from Flickr

The Wild World of Laura Ingalls Wilder

This article was originally published by the New York Botanical Garden’s “Plant Talk” October 3, 2017.

Most of us know Laura Ingalls Wilder as the author of The Little House series. But now a wonderful new book by NYBG instructor and garden historian Marta McDowell reveals little-known facts about Wilder’s other life—as a settler, farmer, and gardener.

In The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes That Inspired The Little House Books (Timber Press, $27.95), McDowell creates an intimate, colorful, and witty portrait of the writer who cherished her gardens and whose gardening life was shaped by the prairie lands that have largely disappeared today. (McDowell is also the author of Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, Emily Dickinson’s Gardens, and All the Presidents’ Gardens.)McDowell_Cover-320x417

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Wilder’s birth. Her life began in 1867 in a Wisconsin log cabin, a frontier baby whose pioneer parents had cleared a forest to make a farm—“the quintessential American beginning,” says McDowell. McDowell traces Wilder’s upbringing and adulthood in the first part of the book—several chapters follow her from Wisconsin, to Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, Missouri, and other places where Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane (her prairie rose), ultimately lived.

McDowell organizes the second part of the book for travelers and gardeners who might want to go see some of Wilder’s gardens or who want to grow the plants Wilder grew. A big bonus: At the end of the book, there’s a long plant list with common and botanical names of plants that Wilder grew, plus where they are mentioned in her novels, and whether they were grown at Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri. For the record, McDowell notes that violets, in particular, appear in almost every book written by Wilder.

Photo of Marta McDowell
Marta McDowell

I recently asked McDowell some questions about writing her book. (Some parts of this interview have been condensed and edited for length.)

Q. How did you get the idea for the book?

A. The idea came in an unusual way, at least in my experience. It was the first week of March 2015. I had just sent in the submission for All the Presidents’ Gardens and was ready for a break. During a phone conversation, my editor, Tom Fischer at Timber Press, dangled the suggestion of Laura Ingalls Wilder in front of me. The South Dakota State Historical Society Press had released an annotated version of Wilder’s previously unpublished autobiography, Pioneer Girl, in 2014, and it was a surprise best seller. After an initial print run of something like 10,000 copies, well over 100,000 copies sold! This is every publisher’s dream. Then, the minute I started reading up on Wilder’s life, I was hooked.

There was one catch. Timber Press wanted to publish the book during the 150th anniversary of Wilder’s birth. Thus, unlike my normal three-year cycle for research-writing-production, I had to do this at a sprint, especially given the number of places I needed to see.

Q. The original illustrations by Garth Williams and Helen Sewell are so beautiful. Did you select the illustrations and other graphics for your book?

Carrie, Mary, and Laura Ingalls Wilder
Carrie, Mary, and Laura Ingalls Wilder

A. I do all of the image sourcing and selection myself. It is a part of the work that I love. It lets me dig around in archives, like the glorious collection in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library, and to indulge myself by acquiring some antiquarian books for my own shelves. I think that because I choose my own images, they fit my words.

I do have one secret weapon—maybe superhero is a better word—for artwork. My friend Yolanda Fundora is a gifted graphic artist, and I hire her to work with me on every project. She can do things like take imperfect antique images that I have scanned out and make them publication ready.

Q. What did you enjoy most about doing the book?

A. I kept uncovering surprises about Wilder’s relationship to places and plants, surprising because they resonate with 21st-century sensibilities. She depicted the natural world where she lived—eight or ten places depending on how you count—each with a unique combination of flora, fauna, terrain, weather, describing what we now would call a biome or ecosystem. She mourned the loss of the prairie and wild places. And while she participated in the steadily advancing mechanization of American agriculture, the Ingalls and Wilder families practiced sustainable techniques on the farm and in the home. They saved seeds, composted and amended their soil, used green manure cover crops, and understood the delicate balance of livestock, food crops, and their growing conditions. They prepared and preserved foods in ways that are everywhere now, from lifestyle blogs to the shelves of gourmet food boutiques and increasingly to supermarket aisles.

Those topics let me dive into other areas of interest: The history of canned food; the development of the mason jar; the sources and origins of seeds; and much more.

Map of the Wilder Homesteads
Map of the Wilder Homesteads

Q. What did you find challenging about the book?

A. First, the commute was tough. Wilder and her husband, Almanzo, lived in New York State (almost at the Canadian border), Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, and Missouri, plus one year on the Florida panhandle—the only homesite I haven’t seen yet. Her papers are housed in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa. So it meant that I spent a lot of time on the road.

Second, I am less familiar with plants of the plains and prairies (not to mention the Florida panhandle), so I had to contact experts. And I must say that folks across the country were universally helpful and responsive: Folks at the various Ingalls and Wilder homesite museums; professionals and scientists from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange, South Dakota Game, Fish & Park, Kansas Forest Service, the University of Kansas, Old House Gardens Heirloom Bulbs, Prairie Moon Nursery, and a big shout out to the NYBG Plant Information Team.

Q. Do you have a favorite plant from those described in your book?

A. Growing the plants that I am researching is a great part of my job, and one that gets me away from the keyboard and back outdoors. Since starting on this book I’ve added sweet potatoes, ground cherries, and blue flag irises (Iris versicolor and I. virginica) to my own garden with good results.

'Aunt Molly's' Ground Cherry
‘Aunt Molly’s’ Ground Cherry



Agatha Christie’s Poisonous Plants


This article was originally published by on September 27,  2017.

Agatha Christie adored her gardens. As a child growing up at Ashfield House in the coastal town of Torquay (pronounced Tor-Key), her favorite spots were among outdoor potted palms, giant copper beach trees, and wild, woodland paths. Later on, as one of the all-time best-selling authors of the 20th century, she was able to afford her own country house and gardens nearby, called Greenway. There, she helped restore more than 30 acres of historic, specimen gardens and created her own successful commercial nursery. As her books continued to sell million-fold around the world, she was nevertheless known locally for winning the the annual Brixham Flower Show– a prestigious and increasingly international affair.

This horticultural side of the “Queen of Crime” is little-known by garden lovers or by millions of Christie’s fiction fans around the world. Although the annual International Agatha Christie Festival (coming up on September 13-17 in Torquay) draws thousands of visitors to Torquay and local sites including Greenway, most of these fans are focused on Christie’s fiction, not her plants. But the plants–as they always do– seem to tell a story all their own.

A Colorful and Long History

The gardens at Greenway were cultivated going back five centuries. The property was owned originally by a series of well-known farming and aristocratic families who lived along the River Dart. The mild coastal climate of Devon– sometimes called the “English Riviera”– lent itself to gardening with tropical plants, which contributes the the garden’s unique, ethereal quality today.

Each successive owner– including relatives of Sir Walter Raleigh– altered the landscape that Christie eventually bought, leaving her a bit overwhelmed with the task of managing such a “rare garden” when she took possession of it with her husband, Max Mallowan, in 1938.

Mallowan, a noted archeologist, kept detailed records of any trees, shrubs, and flowers that they purchased. He was especially fond of a magnolia tree still standing today near the house. But according to the Royal Horticultural Society, among the best exotic specimens in the gardens are rare mimosas, myrtles, mahonia, and puyas. Plus: there is an exceptional collection of more than 200 different camellia cultivars, more than 50 different eucalyptus species, and amazing gigantic rhododendrons originally brought from China in the 19th century by the famous plant-hunter George Forrest.

Two of Christie’s most famous mysteries are clearly set at Greenway, under fictional names. The murder weapon in Five Little Pigs happens to be local spotted hemlock. In Sparkling Cyanide, it’s cyanide, also a plant-based poison.

The property includes several distinct garden areas including: two walled gardens; a vinery; a kitchen garden; a fernery recently restored with a central water fountain; a “top garden” with gorgeous borders, late-flowering clematis on walls, and beschorneria– a succulent with 6-foot flower spikes.

Two of Christie’s most famous mysteries are clearly set at Greenway, under fictional names. These stories actually include many scenes in the gardens. They are: Five Little Pigs (1943) and Dead Man’s Folly (1956). (The murder weapon in Five Little Pigs happens to be local spotted hemlock. In Sparkling Cyanide, it’s cyanide, also a plant-based poison.)


Graphic: Eidia Moni Amin

Deadly Plants: Christie’s Weapons of Choice

According to her biographers, Christie never actually wrote her books at Greenway. She really was there to enjoy family holidays, to garden, and, most importantly, to re-charge her imagination for the next writing project, using the surroundings for creative inspiration. Many of her fictional characters, settings, and especially her plots, reflect her knowledge of the plants and grounds on the property.

In fact, Christie’s use of poisonous, plant-based chemicals as the “murder weapon” in so many of her mysteries reveals her gardening expertise. Many of the poisons in her stories come from plants that she knew well because they were growing in her own garden beds and in the surrounding woodland areas at Greenway.

Take one example: the poison cyanide. A plant-based chemical, cyanide is produced in the fruit stones of peaches, nectarines, and other members of the prunus family, which Christie knew because she cultivated these fruits in her extraordinary Peach House. This indoor garden house was the longest structure of its kind in Devon, and only recently has been restored.

Christie’s use of poisonous, plant-based chemicals as the “murder weapon” in so many of her mysteries reveals her gardening expertise.

In her novels, Christie also references many other potentially lethal plants like hemlock (which can be mistaken for wild parsley growing in the woodlands along pathways down to the river,) and digitalis (a toxic, heart-stopping compound that comes from the lovely foxgloves native to her garden). (See the list above for more examples of Christie’s “deadly weapons”.)

Christie had rather exceptional, detailed knowledge about dangerous poisons, not only from her gardening but from her youthful training as an apothecary’s assistant, or dispenser, in the local Torquay hospital during the First World War. She was also a dispenser at University College Hospital in London through the Second World War. As a result of this repeat training, she knew which plants and what doses could be lethal.

The Role of the National Trust

In 2009 Christie’s house at Greenway was re-opened to the public having been partially restored by Britain’s National Trust, an independent charity that grants protected status to historic houses, gardens, and ancient monuments. The estate was given to the Trust in 2000 by Christie’s family, who oversaw many of the plantings after her death in 1976.

The Trust continues to restore several of Greenway’s garden areas and currently gives tours of the house and gardens, providing background materials on their website, as they do for so many other outstanding gardens in England.

Because of the large number of visitors to Greenway, the Trust requires special transport arrangements so that the narrow country roads aren’t jammed. Parking near the property must be arranged in advance. Local experts say that the best approach is from the River Dart by boat or ferry– but whatever the approach, the gardens and grounds provide a unique combination of literary and horticultural experiences, as well as valuable botanical clues to many of Christie’s most captivating mysteries.


For more information or to plan a visit to Greenway, visit the estate’s website.


There’s Still Time To Check Out These Late-Summer Floral Exhibits


This article was originally published by on August 15 2017.

There’s still time in Summer ’17 to visit three fantastic floral-inspired exhibits where you can experience a sense of awe and wonder in the Big Apple. When you’re not out enjoying a sweet floral icecream or exploring one of NYC’s hidden gardens, check out these three floral expos to cool off from the summer heat.


Photo: Stefan Hagen
Jill Parisi, Bower, 2017 (installation view). Courtesy of the artist and Kenise Barnes Fine Art, Larchmont, NY.

Flora Fantastica! at Wave Hill

At the Wave Hill public garden in the Bronx, the gallery in Glyndor House presents “Flora Fantastica!” by four New York-based artists: Nancy Blum, Amy Cheng, Elisabeth Condon, and Jill Parisi. Each artist uses individualized techniques to explore luscious floral patterns and botanical forms.

When you first enter the Glyndor vestibule, Jill Parisi’s immersive installation Bower, 2017 (above) greets you with encircling, imaginary flowers hand cut from loktah, gampi, and mitsumata tissues. “Parisi’s myriad of fantastical hybrid plant forms seem to flutter off the walls,” says Jennifer McGregor, senior curator of the exhibit. The delicate, hanging forms are hand-colored and attached with entomology pins.

Says Parisi of the work: “The process for creating the flora and fauna existing in my imaginary ecosystems can be likened to jazz– I’m riffing on nature, taking colors, structures, et cetera, from a variety of species and places, and reconfiguring them in a new way.”


Photo: Courtesy of Nancy Blum
Nancy Blum, Harmony, 2017, ink, colored pencil, gouache and graphite on paper, 36 x 48 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

In contrast, Nancy Blum’s two-dimensional, large-scale drawings use ink, colored pencils, gouache, and graphite to create seductive botanical images combining species that wouldn’t normally exist together.

Her drawing, Harmony (2017, above) suggests the Chinese influences in her work. But Blum’s botanical sources are actually very wide-ranging, from 16th- and 17th-century works to German botanicals and Chinese plum blossoms. Blum, like the other three women artists in the exhibit, also creates larger public commissions, including notable contributions to MTA’s Arts for Transit Program.


Photo: Carmen Lizardo
Amy Cheng, Closer and Closer, 2013, oil on canvas, 38 x 42 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Elisa Contemporary Art, Bronx, NY.

Amy Cheng’s oil on canvas floral creations are an elegant feast for the eyes, emphasizing rich colors, pattern, and repetition in designs that have cosmic and textile references. Her work invokes opulent mandalas, intricate cells, lace, brocade, and ancient Middle Eastern motifs. Located in the center gallery, the viewing experience is designed to foster contemplation, as the circular geometry of every painting feels primal and rhythmic.

Compared to Cheng’s work, Elisabeth Condon’s acrylics, made with Chinese ink on linen, seem more realistic and earthy. Incorporating varied patterns (from her mother’s old household wallpaper as well as Chinese imagery,) Condon depicts gardens in different seasons based on drawings made from life in Wave Hill’s greenhouses.


Photo: Courtesy of Robert Zakanitch
In Quest of the Holy Snail, 2010. Gouache on paper diptych, 96 x 72 inches, overall. Courtesy of the artist.

Gardens of Ornament by Robert Zakanitch

Artist Robert Zakanitch, one of the founders of the Pattern and Decoration Movement of the 1970’s, presents his dramatic and witty images on a huge scale. Now at the Hudson River Museum, Gardens of Ornament finds Zakanitch using everyday objects like soup tureens, wallpaper patterns, and drawings of all sorts of charming little animals reminiscent of folk art. There’s a definite “wow factor” to his work, along with a wonderful sense of humor.

“The process for creating the flora and fauna existing in my imaginary ecosystems can be likened to jazz– I’m riffing on nature, taking colors, structures, et cetera, from a variety of species and places, and reconfiguring them in a new way.”

Zakanitch explains of his concepts: “I started doing paintings that were influenced by the linoleum floors I had as a kid– these big roses, and mostly flowers, and all these curlicues. I wanted to go in just the opposite direction of ‘less is more’.”

Using acrylic, watercolor, and gouache, with heavily built-up surfaces, Zakanitch places clever characters in his paintings, like classic author Jane Austen in Ms. Austen Regrets (2007) from his Tureen series, or the ancient Greek poet in Sappho Soup (2006), which features a tureen with gold leaf on the flowers.

In a large, separate gallery space, gigantic, boldly-colored flowers decorate his Hanging Gardens series (2011-12), made with gouache and colored pencil on paper. Each huge painting has a different type of valance design, located at the top, almost like hanging a curtain. Zakanitch points out: “The first piece had to have the sense of hanging– the weight of flowers on the wall. So that’s why there’s always something at the top of each painting, as if all of that is being suspended….”


Photo: Courtesy of Robert Zakanitch
Chicken Iris, 2008. Gouache on paper diptych. 96 x 72 inches, overall. Courtesy of the artist. 

For his series Garden of Ordinary Miracles (2008), which features iris flowers and various witty wildlife, Zakanitch painted the backgrounds to look like ordinary brown wrapping paper. Each boldly-colored vase of flowers is surrounded by humorous drawings: a swan swims out from “behind” the vase; a bird has a seed in its beak, a spotted rabbit sits in the background, and a song swirls from the mouth of a robin.


Photo: D. James Dee Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York
Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987), San Francisco Silverspot, 1983,
from ‘Endangered Species’ portfolio of 10 silkscreen prints on Lenox Museum Board.

Spring Into Summer with Andy Warhol and Friends!

Warhol’s interest in the natural world is a lesser-known side of the iconic pop artist. But according to Kenneth E. Silver, New York University Professor of Modern Art and curator of the “Spring into Summer with Andy Warhol and Friends!” exhibit at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, Warhol’s Flowers (Hand-Colored) 1974, provides an expanded view of his aesthetic universe. Warhol’s suite of ten silkscreen prints depict floral still lifes in intimate detail, offering a simultaneously realistic and surprisingly intimate portrayal of Warhol’s perspective on the natural world.

Besides these flower images, the museum also presents Warhol’s gorgeous silkscreen images of Endangered Species (1983), including ten animal portraits in bold pop art colors. One of these is the San Francisco Silverspot butterfly, a work commissioned by his his friend and publisher Ron Feldman and his wife Freyda in order to “raise environmental consciousness.”


Photo: © 2017 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987), Flowers (Hand-Colored), 1974.

At the time of the work’s inception, the Silverspot– so named for silver markings on the underside of its wings– had declined due to loss of habitat around Bay Area cities. Like some other butterfly species, the Silverspot relies on just one species of native plant– the field pansy, aka Johnny Jump-up (Viola bicolor)– as a host.

Warhol’s much earlier and imminently recognizable 1964 series Flowers (which is not in this exhibit), was notorious at the time because it was the subject of a highly-publicized lawsuit. (Read our previous coverage on The Story Behind Andy Warhol’s ‘Flowers’, here.) These earlier flower images were inspired by a photograph of hibiscus blooms taken by Patricia Caulfield, then the Executive Editor of Modern Photography Magazine. She sued Warhol and they later settled out of court, but the work persisted to become one of Warhol’s most recognizable prints– a legacy that endures to this day.


Flora Fantastica! is at Wave Hill’s Glyndor House until August 27.

Robert Zakanitch: Garden of Ornament is at the Hudson River Museum until September 17.

Spring Into Summer with Andy Warhol and Friends! is at the Bruce Museum until September 3.